‘Thick Description’ and Qualitative Research Analysis

In Chapter 8 of Bryman, Beel, and Teevan, the authors discuss qualitative research methods and how to do qualitative research. In a subsection entitled Alternative Criteria for Evaluating Qualitative Research, the authors reference Lincoln and Guba’s thoughts on how to assess the reliability, validity, and objectivity of qualitative research. Lincoln and Guba argue that these well-known criteria (which developed from the need to evaluate quantitative research) do not transfer well to qualitative research. Instead, they argue for evaluative criteria such as credibility, transferability, and objectivity.

Saharan Caravan Routes

Saharan Caravan Routes–The dotted red lines in the above map are caravan routes connecting the various countries of North Africa including Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Morocco, Mali, Niger and Chad. Many of the main desert pistes and tracks of today were originally camel caravan routes. (What do the green, yellow, and brown represent?)

Transferability is the extent to which qualitative research ‘holds in some other context’ (the quants reading this will immediately realize that this is analogous to the concept of the ‘generalizability of results’ in the quantitative realm). The authors argue that whether qualitative research fulfills this criterion is not a theoretical, but an empirical issue. Moreover, they argue that rather than worrying about transferability, qualitative researchers should produce ‘thick descriptions’ of phenomena. The term thick description is most closely associated with the anthropologist Clifford Geertz (and his work in Bali). Thick description can be defined as:

the detailed accounts of a social setting or people’s experiences that can form the basis for general statements about a culture and its significance (meaning) in people’s lives.

Compare this account (thick description) by Geertz of the caravan trades in Morocco at the turn of the 20th century to how a quantitative researcher may explain the same institution:

In the narrow sense, a zettata (from the Berber TAZETTAT, ‘a small piece of cloth’) is a passage toll, a sum paid to a local power…for protection when crossing localities where he is such a power. But in fact it is, or more properly was, rather more than a mere payment. It was part of a whole complex of moral rituals, customs with the force of law and the weight of sanctity—centering around the guest-host, client-patron, petitioner-petitioned, exile-protector, suppliant-divinity relations—all of which are somehow of a package in rural Morocco. Entering the tribal world physically, the outreaching trader (or at least his agents) had also to enter it culturally.

Despite the vast variety of particular forms through which they manifest themselves, the characteristics of protection in tbe Berber societies of the High and Middle Atlas are clear and constant. Protection is personal, unqualified, explicit, and conceived of as the dressing of one man in the reputation of another. The reputation may be political, moral, spiritual, or even idiosyncratic, or, often enough, all four at once. But the essential transaction is that a man who counts ‘stands up and says’ (quam wa qal, as the classical tag bas it) to those to whom he counts: ‘this man is mine; harm him and you insult me; insult me and you will answer for it.’ Benediction (the famous baraka),hospitality, sanctuary, and safe passage are alike in this: they rest on the perhaps somewhat paradoxical notion that though personal identity is radically individual in both its roots and its expressions, it is not incapable of being stamped onto tbe self of someone else. (Quoted in North (1991) Journal of Economic Perspectives, 5:1 p. 104.

The Trilemma of International Finance

In IS210, we will be reading about domestic political economy next week. Understanding the role of state and market, politics and economics, we can learn about what causes some countries’s economies to grow quite rapidly and other countries’ economies to grow more slowly. We’ll look at the role of domestic institutions and policy choices as key root causes in economic development. [How does this contrast with Inglehart’s arguments, or Weber’s idea of the ‘Protestant work ethic?’] Increasingly, though, our ever more globalized and interdependent world economy provides domestic economies with opportunities and threats that didn’t exist to nearly this extent even 50 years ago. We’ll look at economist N. Gregory Mankiw’s New York Times editorial piece on the “trilemma of international finance.”

Have a look at this Frontline excerpt on the Asian financial crisis of 1997 and the role that fixed exchange rates played:

Statistics, GDP, HDI, and the Social Progress Index

That’s quite a comprehensive title to this post, isn’t it? A more serious social scientist would have prefaced the title with some cryptic phrase ending with a colon, and then added the information-possessing title. So, why don’t I do that. What about “Nibbling on Figs in an Octopus’ Garden: Explanation, Statistics, GDP, Democracy, and the Social Progress Index?” That sounds social ‘sciencey’ enough, I think.

Now, to get to the point of this post: one of the most important research topics in international studies is human welfare, or well-being. Before we can compare human welfare cross-nationally, we have to begin with a definition (which will guide the data-collecting process). What is human welfare? There is obviously some global consensus as to what that means, but there are differences of opinion as to how exactly human welfare should be measured. (In IS210, we’ll examine these issues right after the reading break.) For much of the last seven decades or so, social scientists have used economic data (particularly Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita as a measure of a country’s overall level of human welfare. But GDP measures have been supplemented by other factors over the years with the view that they leave out important components of human welfare. The UN’s Human Development Index is a noteworthy example. A more recent contribution to this endeavour is the Social Progress Index (SPI) produced by the Social Progress Imperative.

HDI–Map of the World (2013)

How much better, though, are these measures than GDP alone? Wait until my next post for answer. But, in the meantime, we’ll look at how “different” the HDI and the SPI are. First, what are the components of the HDI?

“The Human Development Index (HDI) measures the average achievements in a country in three basic dimensions of human development: a long and healthy life, access to knowledge and a decent standard of living.”

So, you can see that it goes beyond simple GDP, but don’t you have the sense that many of the indicators–such as a long and healthy life–are associated with GDP? And there’s the problem of endogeneity–what causes what?

The SPI is a recent attempt to look at human welfare even more comprehensively, Here is a screenshot showing the various components of that index:

Screen shot 2014-01-23 at 2.17.50 PMWe can see that there are some components–personal rights, equity and inclusion, access to basic knowledge, etc.,–that are absent from the HDI. Is this a better measure of human well-being than the HDI, or GDP alone? What do you think?

The Political Economy of Revolution–Egypt

In our last session of IS 210 we looked at the topic, political economy. O’Neil defines political economy as “the study of the role of economic processes in shaping society and history.” The recent overthrow of the Mubarak regime in Egypt is a good case study with which to highlight some of the links between political revolution and political economy. Anybody who has taken a political economy course in political science at the graduate level in the last 15 years or so has almost certainly read Stephen Haggard and Robert R. Kaufman’s influential work, The Political Economy of Democratic Transitions. The authors attempt to answer a series of inter-related questions related to the politics/economics nexus as it appeared to them in the early 1990s:

“What role have economic crises played in the near-global wave of political liberalization and democratization? Can new democracies manage the daunting political challenges posed by economic crises and reform efforts? Under what economic and institutional conditions is democracy most likely to be consolidated?”

Haggard and Kaufman ultimately eschew both liberal theories of modernization and (neo)-Marxist theories of dependency and turn to a rational choice framework that focuses on the strategic actions of political elites–especially presidents and military leaders–under conditions of economic and institutional constraint. In addition, the authors make a few key assumptions, one of which I will highlight here: “…the 0pportunities for political elites to mobilize political support or opposition will depend on how economic policy and performance affect the income of different social groups.” (6) The empirical evidence draws from countries such as Uruguay, Brazil, Argentina, Philippines, Peru, and Bolivia. There argument certainly has relevance for the situation in Egypt today and for the potential for the Egyptian polity to make a successful transition toward consolidated democracy.

Jake Caldwell, Director of Policy for Agriculture, Trade, and Energy at American Progress, and coauthor of The Coming Food Crisis, has written recently about the daunting economic challenges facing any new government with respect to food security. In the midst of rapidly increasing global commodity prices–especially foodstuffs–the government must find a way to continue to feed its people, many of whom live on less than $2/day in income. Caldwell writes:

“Egypt has spent $4 billion a year, or 1.8% of GDP, on its bread subsidization program in an attempt to insulate the 40% of Egyptians living on less than $2 a day from inflation. But prices continue to rise…

…Egypt faces daunting challenges as it prepares for broad presidential and parliamentary elections within a year. Ongoing volatility in global food prices will strain resources during this critical transitional period.

As the world’s largest importer of wheat, Egypt is acutely vulnerable to any surge in food prices. Wheat prices have risen 47 percent over the last year and other staples are rapidly approaching dangerously high levels.

Food price inflation and volatility strike hard at the household budgets of average Egyptian families. Many of them spend 40 percent of their monthly income on food. As prices rise, purchasing power is eroded, and the recovery of Egypt’s fragile economy during the transition is slowed.”

How much time will the new Egyptian government have to provide food security for the Egyptian people before the polity’s patience with democracy is compromised? Or is the public yearning for democracy and liberty so strong that economic crisis will have little effect on democratization in Egypt going forward?

Tunisia’s President Steps Down and Flees Country

We’re witnessing the fall of another autocrat, this time in the northern African country of Tunisia. The (as of earlier today) former president, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, has stepped down amidst worsening violence and protests, ending 23 years of autocrat rule. The BBC reports:

Tunisia’s president has stepped down after 23 years in power amid unprecedented protests on the streets of the capital Tunis.

Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi said he would be taking over from President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. A state of emergency has been declared amid protests over corruption, unemployment and rising prices.

BBC sources say Mr Ben Ali has flown to the Mediterranean island of Malta, but this has yet to be confirmed.

Earlier, police fired tear gas as thousands of protesters gathered outside the interior ministry.

Doctors say that 13 people were killed in overnight clashes in Tunis, and there are unconfirmed reports that five people have been killed in protests on Friday outside the capital.

Troops have surrounded the country’s main international airport, Tunis Carthage, and the country’s air space has been closed.

In an address on state television, Mr Ghannouchi said: “Since the president is temporarily unable to exercise his duties, it has been decided that the prime minister will exercise temporarily the duties.”
Tunisia’s President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali addresses the nation in this still image taken from video, January 13, 2011. Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was only Tunisia’s second president since independence from France in 1956

Mr Ghannouchi, 69, a former finance minister who has been prime minister since 1999, will serve as interim president. Earlier, the president – who had said in a TV address on Thursday night that he would relinquish power in 2014 – said he was dismissing the government and dissolving parliament, and that new elections would be held within six months.

The state of emergency decree bans more than three people from gathering together in the open, and imposes a night-time curfew. Security forces have been authorised to open fire on people not obeying their orders. Human rights groups say dozens of people have died in recent weeks as unrest has swept the country and security forces have cracked down on the protests.

The protests started after an unemployed graduate set himself on fire when police tried to prevent him from selling vegetables without a permit. He died a few weeks later.

If Tunisia manages to use this moment as the springboard towards democratisation, it would be only the second true democracy in the Middle East/North Africa. According to the Freedom House organisation, that region of the world is the least democratic, as the map below demonstrates

Freedom in the World 2010

ICG Report–Diamonds and the Central African Republic (CAR)

The International Crisis Group (ICG) has just released a new report on the influence of diamonds on the political situation in the Central African Republic (CAR). We’ve read various papers on the link between resource wealth (“lootable resources”) and political outcomes, such as regime type and economic outcomes. This report analyses the link between the presence of large stores of diamond wealth in CAR, the level of political instability (it’s essentially a failing state) and the existence of endemic conflict.  From the executive summary of the report:

In the diamond mines of the Central African Republic (CAR), extreme poverty and armed conflict put thousands of lives in danger. President François Bozizé keeps tight control of the diamond sector to enrich and empower his own ethnic group but does little to alleviate the poverty that drives informal miners to dig in perilous conditions. Stringent export taxes incentivise smuggling that the mining authorities are too few and too corrupt to stop. These factors combined – a parasitic state, poverty and largely unchecked crime – move jealous factions to launch rebellions and enable armed groups to collect new recruits and profit from mining and selling diamonds illegally. To ensure diamonds fuel development not bloodshed, root and branch reform of the sector must become a core priority of the country’s peacebuilding strategy.

Nature scattered diamonds liberally over the CAR, but since colonial times foreign entrepreneurs and grasping regimes have benefited from the precious stones more than the Central African people. Mining companies have repeatedly tried to extract diamonds on an industrial scale and largely failed because the deposits are alluvial, spread thinly across two large river systems. Instead, an estimated 80,000-100,000 mostly unlicensed miners dig with picks and shovels for daily rations and the chance of striking it lucky. Middlemen, mostly West Africans, buy at meagre prices and sell at a profit to exporting companies. The government lacks both the institutional capacity to govern this dispersed, transient production chain and the will to invest diamond revenues in the long-term growth of mining communities.

Chronic state fragility has ingrained in the political elite a winner-takes-all political culture and a preference for short-term gain. The French ransacked their colony of its natural resources, and successive rulers have treated power as licence to loot. Jean-Bédel Bokassa, the CAR’s one-time “emperor”, created a monopoly on diamond exports, and his personal gifts to French President Giscard d’Estaing, intended to seal their friendship, became symbols of imperial excess. Ange-Félix Patassé saw nothing wrong in using his presidency to pursue business interests and openly ran his own diamond mining company. Bozizé is more circumspect. His regime maintains tight control of mining revenues by means of a strict legal and fiscal framework and centralised, opaque management.

The full report can be accessed here. Here is a Al-Jazeera English news report on the situation in CAR.

What does the HDI measure?

This post is prompted by an e-mail from one of the students in my Comparative World Government class. Here’s the e-mail message:

I’m just studying and going through my notes, and had a quick question. In topic 4 when you were talking about GDPs and the Gini Index you said that there actually was a correlation between countries with a high GDP and a low Gini index, but isn’t GDP used in calculating the gini index? So wouldn’t it kind of skew the data, forcing the gini index to be more likely to follow the same pattern as the GDP?

Just curious

Here is my response:

Thanks for the question. I’m almost certain that I didn’t say that, since there’s generally no correlation between the Gini Index and the GDP. Some rich countries have relatively high equality (Sweden, for example) and some have high inequality (USA). Conversely, some poor countries have high levels of equality (India), while some poor countries have very high levels of inequality (Central African Republic).

What I most likely said was that there was a very high correlation between a country’s GDP and is score on the Human Development Index (HDI). Just a bit of research…turns up this interesting bit of analysis by Justin Wolfers at the NY Times Freakonomics blog, showing a correlation of 0.95 between a country’s HDI rank and GDP rank (2006). That’s an exceptionally high correlation, suggesting that the HDI isn’t measuring much more than the country’s level of GDP.

Wolfers created a graph using the 2006 data for GDP rank and HDI rank, while I provide for your viewing pleasure below.